The death of a landless laborer
''Between the mortar and the pestle, the chili cannot last. We
poor are like chills. Each year we are ground down a little more, until there is
nothing left of us."
These are the words of Hari, a Hindu landless laborer who lived
in Katni with his wife Komla, their three young children, and a niece whose
parents died in the 1974 famine. Their house consisted of a packed mud floor, a
sagging straw roof and walls made of a few dried palm leaves hanging from bamboo
poles. Inside there was no furniture-the family slept on burlap bags, covering
themselves with straw on cold winter nights. Hari did not even own the land on
which the house was built.
Hari's father once owned six acres, enough land to support his
wife and five sons. He sold some land to pay for his sons' weddings, but most of
it was stolen by powerful Muslim landowners who rose to fill the vacuum left by
the departure of the Hindu zamindar. Through fraud, force and moneylending, men
like Shaha Paikur wrested Hari's father's land.
At the time of his death, Hari's father owned only one acre of
land, which was then divided among the five brothers. Hari's one-fifth of an
acre was not enough to feed his growing family, so he worked as a wage laborer
and Komla husked rice in other households. Little by little, Hari sold his land
to buy food, clothing and medicine and to repay his debts. By 1971 the land was
gone, but Hari and Komla still had a few objects of value-a wooden bed, and a
house with solid walls of woven bamboo mats. Then came the independence war.
The Hindus of Katni had to flee to India to escape the ravages
of the Pakistani army, for whom any Hindu was fair game. In the crowded refugee
camps across the border, two of Hari's brothers died, probably of cholera. In
retrospect, Hari said he had more to eat in the camps than he did when he
returned to Bangladesh. Still he told us, "If we Hindus ever have to Bee again,
I'll just stay here. Everyone has to die once, and I would rather do it at
When Hari and Komla returned to Katni after the war, they had
nothing. Their house had been looted; even the walls had been stolen. Despite
the promises of government officials, they received no reliefno food, no
clothing, no blankets. Echoing poor people throughout Bangladesh, they
maintained that corrupt local leaders sold these relief goods on the black
market. Hari and Komla struggled to make ends meet, but rising rice prices cut
into the value of their already meager wages.
In the autumn of 1974, when rice sold at 10 times its
preindependence level, Hari and Komla came face-to-face with famine. "I had no
work, and we had nothing to eat," Hari recalled. "We begged from house to house,
but no one had much to give. One day when l went to town, I saw hundreds of poor
people living in the streets. The gutters were filled with their excrement. What
an awful stench! People sat outside restaurants waiting for the cook to throw
out a few scraps. I saw people fighting over the intestines of a chicken. I saw
people selling their children in the bazaar."
"Later the government set up a gruel kitchen in the town. One
day I went with my brother Kirot. We waited all day, and each got one roti (a
piece of unleavened bread). Who can live on one roti a day? I decided I would
rather die here than in town. My wife and I collected wild greens and roots, and
when we weren't looking for food, we slept. When the children's cries woke us,
we went out again to search for food. Kirot and his wife died at the gruel
kitchen. That's why their daughter Gopi lives with us now."
The famine had passed by the time we arrived in Katni, but Hari
and Komla were still living dangerously close to the margin. During the planting
and harvesting of the crops they could find work, but in the slack seasons they
often went for days without a decent meal. Hari's health slowly deteriorated. He
was trapped in a vicious cycle: without work he could not eat, not eating made
him weak, and because he was weak, employers did not want to hire him.
In the lean season before the autumn harvest of 1975 rice prices
were unusually low because hoarders had unloaded their rice stocks in the
uncertainty following Sheikh Mujib's assassination. But the low prices did not
help Hari, who had no cash. Komla spent hours foraging for edible weeds and
roots, while Hari searched from village to village for work. They sent their
children to the town bazaar to collect the grains which spilled around the rice
merchants' stalls. As the cool, damp nights of winter set in, Hari caught a
cold. His body, weakened by hunger, could not resist it. Within a week he was
Komla's face was knit in a permanent expression of despair.
Villagers promised her work after the harvest, and some gave her a little rice
when she begged at their houses, but their generosity was limited by their own
poverty. Komla worried about her sari, which was falling to pieces. "This sari
will last another month, no longer," she told Betsy. "What will I wear after
that? How will I leave my house to look for work? My husband never earned much,
but at least he shared my worries. Now I have to face the world alone."
Komla realized she would share the same fate as the other beggar
women who passed through Katni-a life of unrelenting hunger. ''People say I will
die like my husband, like his brothers and their wives," she confided. "But
until then I must try to feed the